Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Ogier Blocks a Lynching, Engages in a Couple of Brawls...Biting and Being Bitten
By ROGER M. GRACE
146th in a Series
ISAAC S.K. OGIER was a former Los Angeles County district attorney and was the current U.S. district attorney for Southern California when, on Oct. 4, 1853, he prevented a lynching.
There are dual accounts of the incident in the Oct. 8 edition of the Los Angeles Star. That weekly (Saturday) newspaper was comprised of two pages in English, two in Spanish, the latter pages bearing the title “La Estrella.” The Spanish language content was not simply a translated version of what appeared in English; the two sets of pages had different editors, and reflected disparate perspectives.
The report in English does not mention Ogier. It recounts that on Sept. 26, a group of banditos stole 10 horses while in San Luis Obispo; they headed to the south and were pursued; four suspects, one of whom was a woman, were arrested in Los Angeles by the Los Angeles Rangers. The citizenry convened at the courthouse, and a “jury” was constituted; an extrajudicial trial was held and the suspects were proclaimed guilty by the jury of horse stealing; further, it was found, according to the Star, that their possession of goods stolen from a man who was slain “raised a strong belief that they were murderers.” A death sentence was recommended—but this was subject to ratification at a further assemblage of the citizenry.
“The meeting, nearly unanimously, decreed that they should be hung” the following morning at 10, the article says. “They were not hung, however,” it notes, explaining:
“Through the exertions of individuals, another hearing was allowed them. At this hearing it was resolved to send the prisoners to San Luis; a very good resolve, for, in my judgment, the citizens of Los Angeles ought not to become volunteer hangmen. If it be necessary to inflict punishments without judicial trials, at least let each community share its own responsibility.”
San Francisco’s Daily Alta California, in its Oct. 11 edition, republishes the Star’s account in English, and adds some facts contained in the Spanish-language version including this:
“Mr. Ogier, an American, was opposed to Lynch law, and moved that the prisoners be sent to the Sheriff of San Luis Obispo. The motion was carried.”
The Alta California provides a translation into English of an editorial on a Spanish page of the Star (most likely authored by Manuel Clemente Rojo, who had become Ogier’s law partner in 1851), which includes:
“We believe that the Americans [that is, the settlers] and [native] Californians did not manifest on this occasion such feelings of harmony as they have shown at other times. We noticed a general ill-feeling, caused by the difference of opinion, and even a hate which might have led to sad consequences. One party was armed with pistols, and the other with knives; the former wished to execute the prisoners, as, unfortunately, has been done on previous occasions; the latter were firmly resolved to prevent it at every cost. All the Americans (except the honorable attorney [I.S.K.] Ogier), were for immediate application of Lynch law, and the Californians were unanimously in favor of leaving the prisoners to be tried by the established courts.”
The same edition of the Alta California contains a letter from a man who observed the proceedings in Los Angeles. The letter—which reveals that the extrajudicially appointed jury consisted of “six of our most respectable citizens”—expresses irritation over Ogier’s intercession. It notes that the time for the hanging “is now passed, the proceedings having been delayed through the interference of a few persons, headed by a worthy member of the legal profession, who is extremely anxious to put the ponderous machinery of the law in operation—of course to screen the miscreants from justice.”
Oddly, note was not made of the post that Ogier held as U.S. district attorney for California’s southern district—there being, then, only a northern and a southern district.
(President Franklin Pierce initially nominated him, on April 5, 1853, as marshal for this district and, that same day, the nomination was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. The following day, the panel recommended against confirmation; Pierce withdrew the nomination but, undaunted, proceeded to nominate Ogier as U.S. district attorney and, on April 7, there came unanimous consent by the Senate.)
While the newspaper accounts mention Ogier’s name but not his office, Horace Bell, in his book “Reminiscences of a Ranger,” refers to the office but not the name of the officeholder. His recollection is this:
“On Monday morning rumors of lynching began to circulate, and by noon it became quite evident that unless the robbers were protected by the Rangers their doom was certain. The United States District Attorney, however, went among the lynchers, and represented to them that the people of San Luis Obispo had the best right to administer justice in this instance, and it would not be neighborly courtesy for us to intervene in so delicate a matter, and that ‘it was not our hang,’ and Captain [Alexander] Hope informed them that the Rangers would deliver the prisoners to the sheriff of San Luis Obispo on board the up-bound steamer, and would furnish him a guard, if necessary, on the passage up. On this emphatic assurance the lynchers subsided, the prisoners, including the amorous-looking little brunette, were safely delivered on board Haley’s little steamer, were so securely ironed as to obviate the necessity for a guard, and arrived at the landing of San Luis Obispo.”
While that ends Ogier’s role in the matter, you might find of interest what happened next.
The editor of the Star notes in the Oct. 8 edition:
“The Sheriff of San Luis Obispo, in behalf of his party, requested me to thank the Rangers and the citizens generally, for their prompt assistance and kind attentions.”
Yet, the sheriff did not meet the steamer. An assemblage of local citizens did. They took the prisoners “to the first tree and hung them,” the account in the Oct. 22 edition of the Star says. The article elaborates:
“The prisoners uttered no complaints, made no confessions, and scorned the services of the padre, and were game to the last. They were asked if they had any request to make; to which [one of them] replied, that he would die happy if he could be freed long enough to flog one yankee. His request was not granted.”
Bell’s recitation differs in one respect from that of the Star reporter. He says the citizenry in San Luis Obispo “proceeded to string up the whole party, including that game little vixen aforesaid—that frail, gentle looking brunette.” (He also terms her “as pretty a little brunette woman as ever excited the lustful desires of a Mormon missionary.”) However, the Star’s article says that “[t]he woman is still in this city.”
The contemporaneous newspaper account is more apt to be accurate than Bell’s recollections, scribbled out over the period from 1878-81.
Ogier, in calming the crowds, acted as a man of peace. Whether, as a member of the Rangers, he ever assisted in a lynching—determining “This is our hang”—is unknown, but it’s possible. It is known that there were times he did the opposite of quelling violence.
Bell tells of this incident:
About May, ’53, the Los Angeles bar got on a bust, in honor of the arrival of an Iowa lawyer, General Ezra Drown….They serenaded on Main street, and finally brought up at Madam Barrierre’…and ordered champagne and cigars first, then supper, with champagne and cigars ad libitum. And then the jolly crowd appointed a chairman and commenced giving and responding to each other’s toasts. On their whole rounds they were accompanied by the pompous Marshal [Alviron S. Beard], who pretended to afford his official protection to the roystering limbs of the law, but really to get a deluging supply of gratuitous liquid comfort.
About midnight the crowd had become hilariously noisy, and all wanted to speak at once. Lewis C. Granger had the floor, and offered as a toast, “The descendants of the French Huguenots in America.” The toast was intended as a compliment to the United States District Attorney [Ogier], who claimed to be of “Huguenot origin,” although his paternal ancestors were thought to be of the Hibernian stock. He, however, construed the toast into an insult, and responded by hurling a tumbler at the head of Lewis C, and then the North and the South met in mortal combat. What the result might have been, no one of that crowd was sober enough to even surmise, had it not been for the interposition of the officious head of the infantile city police, whose head and tail was composed of the Marshal aforesaid, who rushed between the two combatants. Lewis C. very adroitly slipped to one side, and the furious United States legal luminary downed the Arkansas man, and chawed his nose until it resembled a magnificent pounded and peppered beefsteak.
On the following day the Marshal appeared at Thompson Burrill’s Court, with his nose in a sling, and had the United States Attorney arrested on a charge of assaulting an officer in the discharge of his duty, but the thing was amicably arranged and the high Federal dignitary did the self-important Los Angeles official the honor to walk arm in arm with him to the Bella Union [Hotel], where they smiled at the bar and swore eternal friendship.
Granger would become the county’s second DA, and Drown would be the sixth and eighth. Beard wound up resigning from office with criminal charges pending against him—a tale for another day.
A “special dispatch” appears in the Aug. 10 edition of the Alta California reporting:
“A private letter dated Aug. 5, from Los Angeles…says the Register of the Land Office and the U. S. District Attorney, had a regular bar room fight, on the night of the 2d inst. It was a genuine Georgia affair, bite, cut and gouge. Upon examining the parties, in the drug store, Mr. Ogier was found to have one finger ‘chawed up,’ his eye badly gouged, and his nose bitten through and nearly off. He yet keeps his bed, and will be laid up for some time. Threats of ‘shooting on light’ cannot be carried out at present, ‘sight’ being very dim between the parties.”
As Bell recounts the incident in his book:
That “history repeats itself” is an undisputed truism. That “virtue hath its own reward” is a maxim even older than “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” That “punishment is sure to follow the wrong doer,” we have all had ample experience. Then, to be brief and to the point, let me inform the reader that the same horrible punishment inflicted on the unfortunate Marshal by the infuriated Attorney, heretofore referred to as having occurred at Madame Barriere’s, at the time the bar went on a bust, was inflicted on the great Federal legal light, by the enlightened and highly civilized gentleman who did such wonderful honor to the best government in the sinecure position of Registrar of the United States Land Office [W.W. Gift]. Sinecure, I say, because the officers were appointed before the land was even surveyed. That is to say, the two dignitaries were quietly supping together in one of the back rooms of the “Montgomery” [a saloon and gambling house in what is now Chinatown] when the pioneer legal representative of the Government emptied a plate of soup full in the face of the Land Office man, who, not in the least disturbed in his cool equanimity, quietly proceeded to lay the attorney across the table and deliberately bite off about an inch of that great Federal nose. Unfortunately for the dignity of the Government, the amateur surgeon who stitched on that nose made a nice graft of it, only he put it on upside down, which made it seem as though the Government man was always turning up his nose at more humble persons, while the fact was that the attorney was one of the most democratic of mankind, and would drink often and always with whomsoever invited him, though of high or of low degree.
President Franklin Pierce nominated Ogier for the office of U.S. district judge for Southern California on Jan. 18, 1854; he was confirmed on Jan. 23.
This barb appears, without elaboration, in the March 16, 1854 edition of the Alta California:
“The appointment of J. S. K. [sic] Ogier, as U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of the State, has not been received with much favor.”
Ogier did, after a time, find favor with some of the populace, but then sparked widespread displeasure by a particular action.
It appears that on June 29, 1858, the acting federal district attorney, E.J.C. Kewen (California’s first attorney general, who would be elected Los Angeles County DA in 1859) wanted an arrest warrant issued…but the court’s seal couldn’t be found. A deputy clerk, at Kewen’s request, instead used a half-dollar piece to make the impression in wax.
That falsification of a seal was a contempt, Ogier ruled on Nov. 18, 1859, ordering the former deputy clerk to jail for 10 days, and imposing a $500 fine. A Los Angeles Star editorial remarks:
“The action of the Court in the matter has awakened in our community a feeling of the strongest indignation for the harsh, unjust, and oppressive role of the Court.”
Ogier served as a judge until his death on May 21, 1861.
DECADES GO BY—Saturday marks 40 years since this column started.
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